Thursday, March 29, 2007

CRPG Review: Ultima

Ultima (now known as Ultima 1) is the sequel to Akallabeth, described in an earlier review here. Richard Garriot, still a teenager in high school, broke new ground in inventing the "tile graphic" concept for Ultima. He divided the screen into small areas or tiles, then created a library of tiles. He then used these tiles to build worlds by drawing them on screen. This greatly sped up graphics, as he only had to redraw changed tiles (instead of an entire screen) when an event was happening in the world. He kept the dungeon 3D wire view from Akallabeth, and these two graphic engines became the staple for the next ten years of CRPG's (see the screenshot, showing how a rich world of grasslands, water, mountains and forests can be created with just a handful of unique tiles; my laser-armed aircar is in the middle of the screen)

While a bit naive by today's standards, Ultima was quite sophisticated for 1980 computer gaming. The setting is a lost kingdom/post-apocalypse/swords & sorcery-style setting a la Lin Carter or Robert Howard (Conan or Cerebus the Aardvark), where most people live at a medieval level of technology, but the adventurer can find such space-age equipment as phasers, hovercrafts and power armor. The wizard Mondain is spreading an evil influence through the land, corrupting people and animals, and spawning monsters, and your job is to track down Mondain and put a stop to it! This game also features the first appearance of Lord British, Garriott's alter-ego, and the most famous NPC (non-Player character) in CRPG history, who will re-appear in most of the sequels as the benevolent ruler of Britannia.

This game showcases Garriott's unique approach to game design - he likes to give people different things to do, so that they can advance the plot in different ways at different times depending upon their preference. If you feel like dungeon crawling, there are 36 dungeons in the game, all ten levels deep (I once mapped the lot of them!). If you like exploring, there are four continents to discover, plus some special islands. For minimaxing (a game term meaning getting the most bang for your buck) your character, you can seek out all 40 towns and compare their shops to get the best items and the best prices. If you like questing, there are eight castles whose rulers will dispense quests. For those who prefer an indirect approach, you can pilfer from shops with thieving skills, and bust princesses out of dungeons. There is even a space arcade game that you can unlock once you have the correct items!

While you can do whatever you like, the game design ties these activities together to make them meaningful. Dungeon crawling is the fastest way to get gold and hitpoints. Exploring is necessary to find the towns and people and special sites that boost your abilities and items. Shopping provides the necessary food and survival gear, plus various magic spell stores. Completing the quests boosts your stats, and gets you items needed to activate the Time Machine. Stealing is a quick way for a thief character to get a head start on the game to make him even with the fighetr and cleric. Rescuing princesses gets you gold and hit points. The space arcade game is needed for you to become a Space Ace, which will impress the princess enough for her to reveal the location of the time machine.

Ultimately, you must raise your hit points, get the best items, boost your stats, become a Space Ace, complete the quests, rescue the princess, find the Time Machine, and go back to a pocket universe before time started, where Mondain is hiding, and bring him to justice. But the freedom of choice is yours. I once completed the game from start to finish in one (long) evening just to see how fast it COULD be completed, but I have also spent countless hours just having fun.

I haven't talked about the character generation, the races that can be played, the spells, the monsters, the treasure - that is all to be discovered, and secondary to this review. Let's just say in the fast game that I exploited the sytem by maxing my DEX at start and creating an Elf Female Thief, then stealing power armor and a phaser from the first merchant to turn his back, and GALADRIAL was off to the races!

So three cheers for Ultima, which is still fun in the 21st century!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

'Bloodied Angels Fast Descending'

I had a delightfully Spinal-Tapian evening last night, as my sister Helen, her son Chris, and my friends Claus and Tom joined me in an evening out for some heavy metal music at the John Labatt Centre in London. This was to be Chris' first concert (not counting Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears or Hilary Duff or any other teeny-bopper concerts he may have seen in the days when he would not be held accountable for any lack of judgement in taste).

First to offer their wares were f'ing Down, a black metal act, featuring former members of f'ing Pantera, as the f'ing lead singer mentioned in between calling the audience f'ing pussies or calling out songs like "This one's for the f'ing bikers". I actually could not quite tell when they changed songs. About the only thing Chris and Helen agreed on at the concert was that Down f'ing sucked. I actually found them quite amusing, as they only played for 30 minutes, and they accomplished the goal of making the next act look good in comparison.

Megadeth (a speed metal group) played a short, taut set, only 45 minutes long, with little talking, and many guitar solos (I think i counted seven of them in "Hangar 18" alone!) Our seats were a bit far away to get a good look at Dave Mustaine's guitar playing. I didn't know their new stuff, and Chris didn't know their old stuff, so we had few comparison points. Memo to Helen - Chris needs to grow his hair long before the next heavy metal concert so he can headbang more effectively.

Sabbath played almost two hours, and most of their songs were interesting. They had an excellent stage set (no 18-inch high stonehenges here) which I wished I could find a picture of and download. The music was slow and very heavy (as opposed to Megadeth's fast and very heavy). I think Chris could take or leave Sabbath (not enough energy!) but I think they put on an excellent show. Helen and I are Dio fans, and he still has the voice at 57 years of age - quite impressive, and Sabbath were nice and heavy.

I'm not sure if I would go again (concert tickets are expensive), but I'm glad I checked them out.

PS - There was a drum solo!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Performance and Practise: Group Dynamics

front row, left to right: Helen, Sally, Me (John)
back row, left to right: Clare, Alison, Tony

For the last few years, I have enjoyed playing with my sisters at a few Christmas concerts. These started as informal get-togethers, but have morphed to something a bit more planned since I joined in (mainly because I live out of town and have to plan to get down). As we contemplate doing even more concerts, I have been musing about group dynamics.

Basically, my sisters enjoy getting together and signing popular or folk songs, usually in an easy-to-sing key, with everybody singing harmony. It's fun - making music is fun. Without changing this format, a pleasant performance can be put on for people. We also realize that we can deliver an even better concert experience if we vary things.

We can change between song styles. We can sing unison, harmony and a capella. We can experiment with different keys, moods, and even different instruments (banjo's anyone?) Perhaps Clare or Helen can do a lead, or we can do call and answer. Adding another instrumentalist to the mix when I joined allows Sally to rest from guitar and play the violin. With Sally available I don't have to play every song and can also take a break, or break out the harmonica. Sally and I have different guitar styles and talents, so we can vary the repertoire more.

All of a sudden it is not so cozy. Which songs are we going to play? Who picks the songs? How do we produce a dynamic difference in performance? Who will efface themselves so that others can shine? How much should we push ourselves to learn different things? All these put a bit of a strain on the group - are we still having fun?

Fortunately the answer is still "Yes", and I am learning so much about music just by performing with others. As long as we listen to each other, give respect, and know when to let things just slide, I am sure we will continue both to have fun, and get better. It is interesting to see how much things have changed the last few years, but hopefully the main reason to get together will never change.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Songwriting: My Bonnie Highland Lass

The sun has set, let's have a wet
It's time to raise a glass
To Annie of the ruby lips
My bonnie highland lass
My mood is dim and melancholy
This in turn will pass
As I ponder on the wonder
Of my bonnie highland lass

My bonnie highland lassie
Has left and gone way
I fear that all the bright lights
Have led her all astray
Her hair so black and raven
Her choc'late eyes so brown
Here I'll make a haven
For her coming from the town

The sun has set, the day is wet
As I stare into the grave
Of my bonnie highland lassie
The love I couldn't save
No more I'll pipe to please her
It's time to say a mass
My only goal to save the soul
Of my bonnie highland lass


This tune was written literally as fast as I could write it down, maybe two minutes for the lyrics and five minutes for the music. I share space at work with Anne Cowan, who was hired by former Crabtree owner Margaret McLean many years ago as part of an outreach program with the London Mental Health unit. Annie was an English teacher before being hit with schizophrenia, and works about 6 hours per week, when she remembers to show up. She is also a poet, having written 7 volumes of poetry (although she refuses to publish them).

Anyway, Annie and I chat about philosophy, science, literature, beer, music, and whatever topics amuse us. Her latest complaint was that I had never written a song for her. I agreed to write one on the spot. She wanted a Scottish song, with all the correct elements. Her hair, she said was raven black, not grey, and her lips were ruby. She wanted the song melancholy, and we needed to put bagpipes and the word 'bonnie' in it. I came up with My Bonnie Highland Lass. When she objected that she was a lowlands girl, I overruled her - not romantic! You're a highland girl now. Plus I decided to kill her off in the end, which she thought was appropriate. I had been contemplating putting Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" to music, so the starting point of the lyric was easy, and the rest just flowed.

The tune was a mish mash of Loch Lomond, Coming Through the Rye, and The Northen Lights of Old Aberdeen, hopefully fused into something unique. I stole an idea from Chris De Burgh's "I'm Coming Home" off the Spanish Train album to help me get through the chorus. Working out the chords was the laborious part - I'm still not very good at finding the right chord to put behind a melody to convey the sound I want. The last consideration was I wanted this to be able to be played on a recorder (or any pipe) so I had to constrain the melody to make it fit into one octave. Anyway, it was fun to write.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Album Review: News of the World

I recently picked up News of the World, by Queen. This was my favourite Queen album when I was a teenager, and listening to it reminded me of why - it is the heaviest Queen album. This is a drawback to others, but I like it when Queen kicks back and kicks ass. It may help when evaluating the album to realize that this was Queen's reaction to the punk movement and their criticism of lavish excess of bands like Queen, Led Zeppelin and Yes.

The Good:

From a technical standpoint, this is the best Queen has ever been. It features their cleanest production and their tightest playing - they have never sounded so good. Brian May found a unique guitar sound that he never duplicated on any other album. In fact, this is a Brian May album - I have no idea what Freddie was doing when this was written/recorded. We Will Rock You crunches, We Are the Champions soars, Sheer Heart Attack is like a buzzsaw in your ear outpunking the punk movement, John Deacon steps out on electric piano on the gorgeous Spread Your Wings, and Queen's harmonies are finally released on the epic It's Late. It all finishes with your ears bleeding, and then the perfectly appropriate My Melancholy Blues finishes the album. One can just picture Freddie sitting at a piano in some empty ballroon with spilled champagne glasses and soild table cloths as he rings down the curtain. Oh, did I mention the guitar just crunches?

The Bad:

Where is Freddie? Fans of Day at the Races/Night at the Opera silly stuff will not find any Seaside Rendezvous, Millionaire Waltz, Somebody to Love or Love of My Life. Champions is solid, Melancholy Blues is lovely, but the only other tune he wrote is the bizarre Get Down Make Love, which could safely have been left off the album. Half the songs are sung by Taylor or May. The album is front loaded - after the four hit songs, you have to sit through very mediocre songwriting until album end. Queen stripped down their harmonies so much that they are only in evidence on two songs. You expect more from Queen than just a solid rock album.

The Interesting:

It's Late is the first in a series of songs that Brian uses to explore his crumbling marriage, culminating in Love Token on his Back to the Light Album. Freddie's chord progressions on My Melancholy Blues get taken to a new level on the next album with the superior Don't Stop Me Now.

The Bottom Line:

I like this album - it rocks (I'm a May fan). Clare finds it a bit boring (she's a Mercury fan). Borrow it from her and decide for yourself.